September 15, 2014

They Call Her ‘Songbird’-Behind the Scenes with Joanne Shenandoah

A grandmother waved her over after a concert to tell her that the Inuit believe songs are carried over the ice from the Ancestors’ land by the birds.

“She called me a song bird and said that birds bring their songs to me. She could envision where my songs came from. They come from beautiful places," explained Joanne Shenandoah.

In this interview with Native American Times, Joanne Shenandoah speaks to some of her personal and cultural history that’s guided her to becoming one of the most beloved and awarded Native recording artists in history. Here, she shares from her heart about what has motivated, inspired, and kept her focused on giving to the world community for many decades.

NAT- Your music draws on Native tradition and you sing in the Oneida language. Your words may be unfamiliar to some listeners, but the music has global approval.  What do you feel the reason for this is?

Joanne- The vibration of music touches the soul and hearts of people. Music has been called the ‘universal language’ and speaks to us all. While I was in Istanbul, the call to prayer was a constant reminder throughout the land, and affected me although I did not understand the words. Music in different languages is vibrations of sound that bring us to a place of celebration or enlightenment.

A great artist, A. Paul Ortega, a Mescalero Apache Medicine man, once told me that I should never refuse to sing, as my voice will bring people together in a place which may never be otherwise together because of my gift. This is what I aim to do through my music. I have received so many letters and emails from people around the globe whose lives are positively affected by my music. What a blessing!


NAT- You recently participated in a concert held in Bethlehem on Christmas, 2011 with Steve Robertson’s, “Project Peace on Earth” (http://www.projectpeaceonearth.org/) that served as a global, musical prayer for peace. This must have been a life-changing event for you as you performed live on Christmas Eve at Manger Square, directly in front of the Church of the Nativity and across from a Mosque.  On Christmas Day, you performed in the full “Project Peace on Earth” concert at the Bethlehem Convention Palace which is next to the famed Solomon Pools.  Bringing thousands of people together live, and tens of millions from every nation and faith through the full concert broadcast, is a powerful experience. How did this concert and visit to the region impact you?

Joanne- Several thousand people were at Manger Square on Christmas Eve day and it was a moving experience to sing and share the message of peace. I was blessed to gift the Iroquois Hiawatha Belt to the minister of Tourism and Women’s Affairs of Palestine, Dr. Khouloud Diabes. I told her this flag represented Hiawatha, one of our prophets of peace. At a special dinner held for our delegation, I was given opportunity to explain to her in detail about how our Peacemaker brought the message of peace to the Iroquois through forgiveness.

It was with sacred respect that I visited the birthplace of Jesus and the Garden of Gethsemane and was so moved to sing an Iroquois Women’s song with my daughter Leah in the church of Mary Magdalena in Jerusalem. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26usZUTvQXk)

Going to the Holy Land was an adventure that I never knew was in my future, but it affected me greatly. Since I’ve had a chance to sing and dance with the Aborigines in Australia, with the Buddhists and traditional people of Korea, chant and dance with African women in Cape Town, I have come to realize that each culture has their form of worship along with their prophets of peace.

NAT- What are your plans for 2012 and what priorities do you feel we need to place before us as a global and united human race?

Joanne- I believe that a lot of people live in fear of the future. 2012 represents a transition to many people and our prophecies tell us that we will continue to survive as human beings. The key to survival will be the ability to live within sustainable societies which secure balance between basic human resource needs and the rights of other species. The Iroquois have a constitutional obligation to do nothing that causes harm which qualifies the rights of the unborn to clean water, fertile land and clear skies. To achieve this, the Iroquois incorporate the rights of others- from the earth to water, insects, animals, plants and trees-all have legal standing which must be respected.

NAT- You have recently gone out on your own and taken creative control of your music. What benefits has that brought you as an artist?

Joanne- “Lifegivers” is my first independent recording from start to finish. Creative management of the actual recording allows me to have direct control in respect to the buyers and then reaching the fans that have purchased my recordings in the past. I am honored to have been involved with helping to bring about the first Native American Music Awards through Ellen Bello. I am much honored to hold 13 Nammys which is the most any Native artist has received to date. It is wonderful seeing so many artists involved now and many of them are independent.

NAT- I know that you care deeply about the women- their growth and positive movement forward and your newest CD, “Lifegivers” is a testament to your honoring the entire lifecycle that women evolve through. Tell us what motivated this recording?

Joanne- “Lifegivers” pays tribute to the life cycles of women and each song is meant to celebrate the cycle of life. It has been my great honor to be embraced by many women of the world! The Iroquois hold that every human being is a remarkable gift of life, experience and creativity from the spiritual world. Each being has specific abilities and talents which must be nurtured by the extended family. Communal stability and peace is realized when children are free to explore the world and apply their talents without coercion or qualification. I have written songs to my daughter Leah and to other women directly in respect to our love, peace, and the commitments we hold to our children by helping them realize their dreams.

Ever since my daughter Leah was born, I have been began singing to her. Now, she is a magnificent singer and has been blessed with a golden voice. Her first recording will be out this year. I am so very proud to be her mother. She is a Cum Laude Graduate of Syracuse University and has her Master’s Degree from Rochester Institute of Technology. (www.leahshenandoah.com)

NAT- What is your wish for future generations?

Joanne- My biggest wish is that all people will have clean air, water, and fertile land to grow their food, sing their songs and dance their dances. I hope that people awaken, stand up and be counted, and they will love their children so much that they will care for the earth and use their Creator-given gifts to do so. I will continue my efforts to bring music that lifts the spirit and heals the soul.


Purchase Joanne’s new CD “Lifegivers” at: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/joanneshenandoah


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